By Ralph Nader
December 7, 2018
It’s tough to be an engineering student these days, with so many new developments in modern technology and technological knowledge. The course curricula are more crowded than ever and the impact of emerging technologies is monumental. Some engineering professors worry that their students’ busy course schedules prevents them from adequately exploring the liberal arts. Without exposure to the liberal arts, engineering students will lack the broad context that will help them approach their work as a profession, not just a trade.
Pressed as they are now in their undergraduate and graduate courses, engineering students may not appreciate the pressures and challenges they will face in their work after graduation. More than handling the stress that comes from needing to meet commercial or governmental deadlines and standards, they will need to understand the ethical ramifications of their actions. Existing industry standards rarely measure up to the necessary health, safety and reliability requirements in the workplace, marketplace and the environment. Moreover, the news media and social media create an environment that shines a spotlight on the personal responsibility of the engineering professions and the obligation to blow the whistle on misdeeds.
The core curriculum for engineering students must include courses and seminars that explore the ethical responsibility of engineering. Understanding economic and political pressures and, if necessary, whistleblowing obligations are all important matters for engineers. This is the subject of Ethics, Politics, and Whistleblowing in Engineering (CRC Press), a new book edited by Rania Milleron, Ph.D and Nicholas Sakellariou, Ph.D (Rania, my niece, is a microbiologist at the Texas Department of State Health Services and Nicholas is a lecturer at California Polytechnic State University).
One of the goals of Ethics, Politics and Whistleblowing in Engineering is to make technology inclined students realize at the very beginning of their careers that the best kind of engineering comes from a foundation in the applied sciences and the humanities. This engaging book – which will interest anyone interested in professionally applied ethics, regardless of field, is full of short renditions of individual engineers as heroes or bold advocates of changing hazardous procedures and ways of doing business.
The engineers featured in this book are professionals who cannot abide working in corporations where common candor has to be called courage. They demand the right to take their conscience to work.
There are sections in this book on whistleblowing around the world, and on the too passive standards-setting roles of engineering societies (like the Society of Automotive Engineers or the Society of Mechanical Engineers). Novel interviews with deep thinkers and beloved, creative professors, such as Princeton’s David P. Billington, who combined history and art in his rigorous courses, make a deep imprint on the reader.
Part I, titled “Engineering Leadership,” is meant to stimulate engineering educators to experiment broadly and open-mindedly in liberal education curricula, to promote unpopular but fact-based viewpoints, and to encourage students to learn about the heroic roots of engineering.
Part II recounts stories about engineers having to make excruciating decisions affecting their careers and the public safety when they take on their profit-obsessed corporate bosses or government officials.
Part III – Raising the Bar, “offers creative, concrete, and sustainable engineering solutions. In an age of designs generated by committees or computers… some think that technologists are losing their creativity and imagination.”
The appendix offers abundant resource material for engineering students and teachers. In the 1950s and 1960s, I was pushing the top executives of the auto companies to liberate their engineers to build life-saving, cleaner, and more fuel-efficient motor vehicles. As I learned more about the industry, it became clear that engineering integrity was subordinate to short-term profit goals, frivolous styling, and excessive horsepower.
Providing a climate of conscientious engineering work, instead of the all-too-frequent self-censorship that comes from top-down or myopic dictates, can save corporations from serious trouble – litigation, public anger, and subsequent loss of sales. In the U.S. auto industry, authoritarian corporate bosses presided over technological stagnation that resulted in shrinkage and bankruptcy.
The development of biotechnology, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence industries has occurred without an effective legal or ethical framework. As a result, we are ever reliant on the first-responders. Unfortunately, many engineers working on the front lines have abdicated their role as sentinels. Their long silence must end.
In the coming years, engineers will need a deep wellspring of professional self-respect. And our society will need to expand the laws and institutions to protect engineers when they do step up and do speak out?
This unique book, for which I have written an introduction, argues in many intriguing and compelling ways that we cannot afford to neglect the ethical dimensions of engineering.
The stakes from climate disruption to the military arms race to our public infrastructure to the health and safety of posterity and our planet are so high. So must be the expectations accorded the engineering profession everywhere in our midst.
(There are feasts of abundant references in this book for any reader to dig deeper).
For more information visit: ethicalengineering.org